Today marks the 29th death anniversary of one of the greatest country music artists. Gone too soon, Keith Whitley’s passing was one of the saddest in country music history. He was just 34 years old. We commemorate his short but memorable life with this tribute article for him.
Keith Whitley Through the Years
On July 1, 1954, Jackie Keith Whitley, popularly known as Keith Whitley, was born in Ashland, Kentucky. He grew up in nearby town Sandy Hook, Kentucky. In 1970, Whitley started his musical career performing in Ralph Stanley’s band. Being a lead singer in bluegrass music, he transferred to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1983.
In 1986, Whitley first penetrated the country music charts with his Top 20 hit single, “Miami, My Amy,” which was released in the same year. While on tour for his album L.A. to Miami, he married country singer Lorrie Morgan. A year before his death, he once again hit the charts with the first three singles from his album, Don’t Close Your Eyes. When You Say Nothing at All, I’m No Stranger to the Rain, and Don’t Close Your Eyes were number-one hits.
On May 9, 1989, Whitley suffered from alcohol poisoning leading to his untimely death at his home in Nashville. His later two singles, I Wonder Do You Think of Me and It Ain’t Nothin’, were released after his death.
During his career, Whitley only recorded two albums but charted 12 singles on the Billboard country charts. Moreover, he charted 7 more after his death.
Keith Whitley was found dead in his home in Nashville, Tennessee. His brother-in-law, Lane Palmer, found him lifeless in the morning of May 9, 1989. Earlier, the two had coffee planned to play golf together. However, when Palmer returned, he found Whitley dead on his bed. Whitley was then pronounced dead of alcohol poisoning at 34 years old.
The passing of the country music star was unprecedented. His last single before he passed away was I’m No Stranger to the Rain. To note, it peaked at no. 1 on the charts just a month before he died. The song is one of the singles included in Whitley’s second-year album, Don’t Close Your Eyes.
Whitley was survived by his wife, Lorrie Morgan, son Jessie, and step-daughter, Morgan. The couple had been married less than three years when Whitley passed away, but his wife was acutely aware of his battle with alcohol.
In an interview with People magazine, Lorrie Morgan recalls,
“Keith was great for months at a time, and then for no reason at all, he’d start drinking. Once he started, you literally had to tie him down or lock him up to make him quit. I tied my robe belt to my leg and to his ankle at night so I would know if he tried to get out of bed. Otherwise he would continue drinking until he passed out. I had to rush him to the emergency room several times in the past because he quit breathing; the paramedics always got to him in time.”
Morgan was in Alaska on a promotional tour at the time of Whitley’s death. She admits that the passing of her husband still pains her.
“I live with that yoke of not being home when he died, I know if I had been, he would be alive, I begged my manager not to make me go, but he said I should.”
A Loss to the Country Music Industry
Whitley’s death rocked the country music community. It affected many other country music artists especially his good friend, Vince Gill. Consequently, Gill wrote Go Rest High on That Mountain after Whitley’s death.
Despite the fact that Whitley died at a young age, his music continued to spread to the other parts of the world. His tune When You Say Nothing at All alone was covered by many other artists including Alison Krauss, and Boyzone’s Ronan Keating.
Keith Whitley’s career may have been short but it gave him just enough time to make his mark on country music.
Watch and listen to Keith Whitley’s no. 1 song, When You Say Nothing at All below: